Thursday, January 28, 2016


Snowflakes stippled the barren-gray scene, tossed by a corkscrewing breeze tumbling down the gauntlet of a mountain hollow, following the track of a frigid mountain stream. I opposed its course, head into the wind, eyes watering, mind set on a deep pool upstream.

The author with a large Shenandoah brook trout taken in the snow. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Clouds set the tone for the landscape, casting a cold, flat light on rock and trunk, granting a frozen appearance to even what was not. Brown leaves, long since fallen and captured by a stiff layer of frost, were static features, even in the wind, and finalized the atmosphere of harsh rigidity about the place. The bone-chilling threat of nearly-frozen mountain water resounded.

    The natural world stays inside on days like these, or so it seems. Gray squirrels may not show themselves in the absence of a mid-morning sun to loosen their limbs. Save for perhaps a solemn march for carbs, the majority of their day is spent dreaming of sunlit explorations of the treetops, curled up, veiled by a thick, bushy tail.

    Deer find thermal refuge in thick lowland pine groves, legs curled under their tawny brown coats, metabolism slowed, fighting tooth and nail for spring. Hunting pressure from the expired season has trained them to sit tight in daylight, and venture forth at the moon’s height (if there is a big moon) or in the respite of dusk for safety.

    Even the parking lot on the fringe of the Shenandoah backcountry, typically jammed with automobiles for its proximity to Charlottesville, is devoid of all but three vehicles, owned, of course, by humans who have engineered their own nutritions outside of the seasons’ environmental demand, and think nothing dangerous or wasteful of a two-mile hike in sub-freezing weather.

    One of those cars is my own, and I passed the owners of the other two on my way up the mountain trail, stride rustling in a pair of weathered waders, my fly rod gripped through a thin glove on my right hand.

    The first was a college-aged girl, presumably from UVA, or otherwise on Christmas break, like myself. As she approached, her covered head bobbed up to see me, as it was previously fixed on the ground, keeping pace with her swift stride. She drew attention to the cold--the weather, as is a cliche among brief trail encounters--and then passed, returning her gaze to the path, hands jammed into her pockets, without breaking stride.

    Surely her business in the mountains was of fitness, as her visit was quick (I saw her depart from the parking lot as I geared up), and seemingly devoid of observation or enjoyment, which might have been hinted at through a slower stride and exploring gaze.

    The second driver followed shortly behind, accompanied by his female of unknown relation, and canine, who, more than any of the humans I had yet encountered, seemed to be enjoying himself. The owners, both clad (as was I) in winter coats, hats, gloves, and sunglasses, whisked by at a hurried pace, hardly breaking their gaze from the course ahead to acknowledge my passing.

    It occurred to me that their being there must have been tied to the needs and desires of their furry companion, though I should think it not entirely fair to consider their motives totally polarized from a respect for nature. Why else, then, would they choose to walk their dog in the mountains and not down their own street?

    That is not to say that there is a right or wrong reason to be in the mountains on an exceptionally cold, and snowy and windy, afternoon. Just that I seldom encounter an angler so taken by the spirituality of the chase as to cross paths with one in the dead of winter, and that I naturally find my mind coming to rest on the question of why that is, and how that makes me different when the creeks turn cold. Am I crazy? Perhaps.

     My own motive comes clear when I reach the trail’s third ford in the creek and moves on, up the mountain, affording a view of the water tumbling through the woods. I leave the trail and make a short trek to the creek to find a large hole with current bordered by a large volume of slack water.

    I ply the water with a large fly, and entice a handful of lethargic, delicate brook trout, and hoist them only momentarily from the icy water, conscious of the air temperature and its effect on them.

    It’s in that cold mountain scene, harsh and rugged in winter, that I feel content, classically pleased. To me, the action is as important and as relaxing as reading a book by the fire or tying flies to music and hot chocolate.

    But everyone lives for different things. I just happen to live for this.□

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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